Experiencing an existential crisis—questioning the meaning and purpose of life—can be daunting. It goes beyond negative thoughts and emotions, anxiety, or depression, which many people will suffer from at some point in their lives.

If you’re worried you may be in the midst of an existential crisis and want to know how to move past it, we have the answers. Learn why existential crises happen, telltale signs, and whether or not you can prevent repeat incidences. 

 

Key Takeaways:

  • Existential crises can happen to anyone, although they usually occur after life-changing events or circumstances.
  • Untreated mood disorders, social isolation, and repressing emotions can also provoke an existential crisis.
  • Symptoms include existential anxiety, depression, and OCD prompted by questioning the meaning of life.
  • It’s possible to overcome an existential crisis by improving mental health habits, either alone or with the help of a professional.
  • Tactics such as practicing mindfulness, journaling, and therapy can help you get through it.

 

Existential Crisis Definition 

An existential crisis is when you ponder the meaning of life to the point of feeling despair and hopelessness. Thoughts about why you exist and questions to which there are no answers begin to interfere with your ability to enjoy life. 

 

What Is An Existential Crisis?

We all go through periods where we search for meaning—as human beings, it’s natural for us to question life. The search for meaning becomes an issue when it begins to consume you and provoke frustration at not finding answers, unhappiness, or other negative emotions. A crisis can prompt severe anxiety, depression, and suicidal tendencies [1].

 

Existential Crisis History

Although we’re not aware of who initially coined the term “existential crisis,” French philosopher Gabriel Marcel came up with the concept of existentialism in the late 1940s [2]. 

 

What Is an Example of an Existential Crisis?

Although an existential crisis may occur unprovoked, it usually happens after a struggle, trauma, or abrupt life change. For example, a person who has been diagnosed with a severe and chronic illness might begin asking questions about the meaning of life.

A high percentage of cancer survivors reported experiencing some existential crisis along with depression or anxiety 

 

How Do I Know If I’m Experiencing an Existential Crisis?

Searching for meaning and purpose in your life combined with bouts of anxiety and depression doesn’t necessarily mean you’re experiencing an existential crisis.

 

Existential Crisis Symptoms

A person may feel lost and ask big questions about life that eventually pass. It’s crucial to differentiate the signs of existential anxiety, depression, and OCD from other manifestations of these common disorders. 

Existential Crisis Anxiety

A person with existential crisis anxiety may constantly be questioning their life’s purpose or dwelling on mortality and the afterlife. Unlike the stress of everyday life, the anxiety is usually ever-present and intrusive: your existence in and of itself could be an anxiety trigger.

If you are experiencing severe anxiety, consider seeking out professional help. In the meantime, learn how to stop a panic attack with these tips. 

Existential Crisis Depression 

Existential depression shares similar symptoms to its non-existential counterpart. You may be feeling persistently sad, fatigued, and lose interest in your regular activities.

However, with existential depression, questioning life, death, and your life’s purpose can lead to despair or suicidal thoughts. For instance, “if we’re all going to die, what’s the point of doing anything?” 

If you are considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline now.

Existential Crisis Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD)

A person with obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) might have the overwhelming compulsion to do things, such as counting, cleaning, or organizing. These compulsions can also be accompanied by intrusive thoughts that cause discomfort and anxiety [3].

 

Existential OCD is when questioning your life’s meaning, or life in general, can lead to an obsessive desire to get answers. Dwelling on questions such as “why am I here and what is my purpose?” to the point of insomnia, panic, or other declines in function is likely existential OCD.

 

What Triggers an Existential Crisis?

 

Existential crises can be triggered by a range of life events and behaviors. Usually, triggers are unpleasant feelings provoked by traumatic or difficult life events.

 

Death Or Sickness in the Family

 

A person may begin to question the purpose of living after the death of a loved one, such as a parent or spouse, particularly if the death is sudden and unexpected [4]. 

When a loved one receives a difficult diagnosis or falls ill, dwelling on impending death, life, and purpose may also occur. 

 

Illness or Injury 

A severe injury or learning that you have a chronic illness can transform how you perceive life, time, and death. You may have questions about the future, or question your new purpose in life now that your circumstances have changed physically and mentally.

 

Age-Related Life Changes 

As we grow older, age-related life changes can lead to the desire to get answers to difficult questions about death and mortality. These life changes can be physical (e.g., menopause) or circumstantial, such as retirement, children leaving home, or the birth of a child. 

For some, the freedom of choice—the ability to change your own life and make decisions for yourself—can become a source of anxiety rather than an advantage [5]. Making choices about where to live, what career to pursue, and more can become overwhelming and prompt existential anxiety, depression, or OCD. 

 

Traumatic Life Events

Many people will experience at least one traumatic life event that might lead them to question the reason behind why they exist. Stressful occurrences such as divorce or job loss can prompt us to try to find answers to the meaning of life, and an existential crisis may occur.

 

Social Isolation 

A person might experience an existential crisis when they are socially isolated or feel disconnected from other people. Loneliness carries a variety of health risks, and can also prompt us to try to find an answer to the purpose of existing, or feel that life is meaningless [6]. 

Several people reported feeling lonely during a covid-19 lockdown

 

Repressing Emotions 

People who repress emotions might experience a range of psychological as well as physical symptoms [7]. Suppressing the way you feel and bottling up your sentiments can also lead to an existential crisis.

 

Untreated Mental Disorders 

A person might feel that life is without meaning and dwell on the concept of existing if they have an untreated disorder, such as depression, bipolar disorder, or another psychological condition. 

Such conditions can worsen or provoke an existential crisis, particularly those that require medications. If you suspect you’re suffering from a mental health disorder, consult a professional.

  

Existential Crisis Help: How To Overcome an Existential Crisis 

The best treatment for an existential crisis will depend on the person. Some solutions might be more effective than others based on factors such as your mental health prior to the crisis. 

There’s no quick-fix solution to get rid of these feelings, but with consistency, you should see improvements.

 

#1. Start Practicing Mindfulness 

Mindfulness is the mental health practice of focusing on the present moment. You acknowledge your feelings without judging them as positive or negative. 

Often, in the midst of an existential crisis, you may struggle to find answers to unknowable questions about why we exist and spend too much time dwelling on the future or the past.

Instead, aim to focus on where you are and what you’re doing now. Make conscious choices about how you go through life without being too disconnected or overly reactive. Mindfulness requires effort: you have to take the time to do it every day. 

 

#2. Readjust Your Perspective

We have the freedom to change our thought patterns to be more positive—even when going through difficult times. 

You might not be able to change your life circumstances, but you can make choices about your thoughts and feelings. 

 

#3. Keep a Journal 

You can feel free to express and document your sentiments in a journal, and make choices every day to change your outlook for the better. A gratitude journal might help remind you of all the positive things in your life—journaling can help to improve your mental wellbeing [8].

#4. Don’t Live In the Past 

It’s hard to find meaning in your day-to-day activities and stay positive if you’re constantly living in the past. Feelings of regret or negative thoughts about past choices can make it challenging to move past an existential crisis. 

Often, mindfulness is an effective tactic therapists recommend to focus more on the present [9]. 

 

#5. Identify Bad Mental Health Habits 

Make choices to change poor mental health habits that are within your control. Often, people may feel reluctant to reach out for support and ask for help, even from a loved one, which can worsen feelings of isolation. 

If you have negative thoughts, you might feel unwilling to burden loved ones, but repressing how you feel can cause you to experience a range of harmful consequences. If your ways of coping with difficult feelings involve suppression or dismissal, work on changing your approach. 

You might think that feeling anxious or unhappy constantly is “normal,” but it likely isn’t—you may suffer from high functioning anxiety or another disorder. At the same time, don’t fall prey to mental health myths: for example, the supposed link between pornography and depression.

Less than 0.5 percent of people experience depressive symptoms after viewing pornography

 

#6. Accept That You Won’t Learn All the Answers

Even if you can’t find answers about life, death, and the meaning of existence, you can learn to come to terms with that and free yourself from existential dread. Many people find meaning and purpose in other ways.

Some people make choices to pursue a spiritual or religious path to understand the purpose of life and search for meaning. Others may try other ways to improve negative emotions and feelings, and come to terms with emotions regarding death, motivation, and other existential issues. 

You might also find that seeking out information (e.g., scientific studies or articles) about death and theories about why we exist can help your experience. You can also seek out support communities for people going through the same thing. 

 

#7. If Things Get Worse, Seek Medical Attention 

If you can’t overcome your existential crisis and the quest for your purpose in life is causing overwhelming depression and anxiety, it’s time to ask for help. Reach out to a professional to seek treatment (e.g., therapy). 

If you feel emotions such as despair and hopelessness that could lead to isolation or suicidal thoughts, don’t wait to take action. Find out what’s involved in a mental health assessment here.

 

Mental Health Resources 

If you or a loved one is going through an existential crisis and feeling lost, make it a priority to check out these helpful resources:

    • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: The NSPL offers immediate help to people contemplating suicide. If you feel your negative emotions are taking you to a dark place, they’re available 24/7—reach out for help.
    • Online therapists: If you’re uninsured or reluctant to make an appointment to see a therapist in person, you can get help from online therapy providers such as Betterhelp and Talkspace. Each service has different treatment options and pricing plans, so you can get information on the best one for you.

 

  • Mental Health America: You’ll find helpful information about mental wellbeing in general, as well as support groups and other resources. 

 

 

Existential Crisis FAQ

Let’s sum up with some frequently asked questions about experiencing an existential crisis.

 

What Does Existential Really Mean?

Existential is a term with philosophical origins: it’s concern with existence, specifically human life.

 

Is It Normal To Have an Existential Crisis?

Yes, existential crises are a normal occurrence, as it’s only natural for people to question what the reason for life is under certain circumstances. If the preoccupation begins to impact your daily life, it’s important to seek help: speak to loved ones, try therapy, or the alternative solutions we suggested above.  

 

Can Children Have an Existential Crisis?

Yes, children who are old enough to question their own existence may experience one. As with adults, this normal line of questioning becomes a problem when the child gets caught up, as adults do, considering the big questions about why we exist. 

If you’re concerned that your child may be suffering from an existential crisis, you may want to have a mental health professional assess their Childrens’ Global Assessment Score (CGAS).

 

Can I Prevent Existential Crises?

Unfortunately, many of the causes of an existential crisis are an unavoidable part of life that most people will experience one day. However, you can control how you cope with life changes, aging, and other triggers to prevent an existential crisis. 

Firstly, it’s important to seek medical treatment if you have severe anxiety, depression, or OCD. Next, find a coping mechanism or practice that works for you and stick with it. That could be therapy, or things such as journaling about your life goals and practicing mindfulness.

 

What’s the Difference Between Existential Crisis vs Identity Crisis?

Although an existential crisis and identity crisis can happen simultaneously, they aren’t the same. Instead of questioning the meaning of life, you may be feeling like you don’t know who you are as a person. That manifests as uncertainty about your passions, values, spirituality, role in society, and relationships.

Much like the symptoms of existential crises, this can be normal until it begins to interfere with your life. Both types of crises have similar causes, like major or traumatic life changes.

 

Having an Existential Crisis? 

Although existential dread about life can be overwhelming, remember that it is possible to overcome an existential crisis. Consider using the coping mechanisms above to address negative thoughts and emotions, and seek professional help if you’re experiencing severe anxiety and depression. 

We may not be able to uncover answers to some of life’s bigger questions, like the meaning of existence, but that doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it. 

References:

  1. Ventegodt, Søren, et al. “Clinical Holistic Medicine: the Existential Crisis--Life Crisis, Stress, and Burnout.” TheScientificWorldJournal, TheScientificWorldJOURNAL, 6 Apr. 2005, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5936532/. 
  2. Treanor, Brian, and Brendan Sweetman. “Gabriel (-Honoré) Marcel.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Stanford University, 3 Mar. 2016, plato.stanford.edu/entries/marcel/. 
  3. Brock, Hannah. “Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.” StatPearls [Internet]., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 8 Dec. 2020, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK553162/. 
  4. Keyes, Katherine M, et al. “The Burden of Loss: Unexpected Death of a Loved One and Psychiatric Disorders across the Life Course in a National Study.” The American Journal of Psychiatry, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Aug. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4119479/. 
  5. Meynen, Gerben. “Free Will and Mental Disorder: Exploring the Relationship.” Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics, Springer Netherlands, Dec. 2010, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2975916/. 
  6. Malcolm, Martin, et al. “Loneliness and Social Isolation Causal Association with Health-Related Lifestyle Risk in Older Adults: a Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis Protocol.” Systematic Reviews, BioMed Central, 7 Feb. 2019, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6366024. 
  7. Dunn, Barnaby D, et al. “The Consequences of Effortful Emotion Regulation When Processing Distressing Material: a Comparison of Suppression and Acceptance.” Behaviour Research and Therapy, Elsevier Science, Sept. 2009, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2764381/. 
  8. Niles, Andrea N, et al. “Randomized Controlled Trial of Expressive Writing for Psychological and Physical Health: the Moderating Role of Emotional Expressivity.” Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Jan. 2014, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3830620/. 

Groves, Paramabandhu. “Mindfulness in Psychiatry - Where Are We Now?” BJPsych Bulletin, Royal College of Psychiatrists, Dec. 2016, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5353527/.

 

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